Kenyan coffee farmers decry growing theft of produce by Organised cartels

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Martin Kamai, a coffee farmer in rural Kenya, was sound asleep when the thieves broke into his warehouse. The 20 armed men jumped the gate, tied up the security guards and escaped with 100 bags of coffee beans – all of Kamai’s harvest.

The 29-year-old from Nyeri in central Kenya is just one of thousands of farmers affected by the country’s growing wave of coffee theft. According to Kenya’s Coffee Directorate, more than 30,000 kilos of coffee have gone missing since the start of 2016, costing the industry hundreds of thousands of dollars. Escalating robbery is not only threatening the farmers’ livelihoods but also international brands that may be re-selling stolen coffee without knowing it.

Coffee is Kenya’s third largest agricultural export and its production employs more than 600,000 farmers, 75% of whom are smallholders (pdf).

Most plantations are on the lush highlands surrounding Mount Kenya, where the combination of volcanic soil and high altitude helps develop some of the world’s finest arabica, famous for its strong acidity and fruity notes. While coffee demand is growing worldwide, Kenya’s output is waning fast.

According to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, coffee production declined by 16% in 2015 compared to 2011 as farmers sold their lands for construction or switched to more profitable crops. This year, Kenya’s coffee yields are expected to drop even lower due to poor weather. Faced with high prices but little produce, greedy merchants are resorting to theft.

Organised cartels

But they are not amateurs, says Esther Murugi Mathenge, a member of parliament for Nyeri, the region witnessing the most coffee thefts, “they are organised cartels”.

These criminal groups enter storage facilities at night-time and can be violent. A security guard was recently brutally murdered while trying to protect coffee stock. Thieves then take the bags to a mill to be processed before smuggling the coffee to neighbouring Uganda, or taking it for sale at a Nairobi auction.

Kenya’s directorate of criminal investigations has intensified its efforts to find the culprits, auditing millers and looking for consignments that don’t match a particular farm’s capacity. But local authorities accuse police officers of being complicit. “It’s worrisome that thieves can escape when there are police stationed on the roads [surrounding the storage facilities],” says Murugi.

Farmers say coffee regulations are working against them. Kenya’s law makes it easy for moneyed middlemen to trade coffee but almost impossible for small-scale farmers to mill or sell their own beans.

Besides the daunting bureaucracy, anyone hoping to become a coffee marketer must have a bank guarantee of £0.8m. Otherwise, farmers have no choice but to pay for transporting their product to millers and marketers. “We do all the work but have no control,” says Kamai.

As thefts multiply, exporters worry. “If they can’t secure their harvest, farmers will stop growing coffee and production will drop,” warns Bridget Carrington, managing director of Dormans Coffee. Dormans is Kenya’s oldest coffee roaster, selling domestically as well as to major multinationals including Starbucks and Nestlé.

Carrington’s fears are already coming true. Dominike Liengo, a third-generation coffee farmer in Meru, eastern Kenya, says coffee used to be his lifeline. Now he has decided to plant tea instead. “What is the point of working hard if there are 20 thieves between you and the market?” asks the 60-year-old.

Meanwhile, foreign buyers worry about ethical sourcing. In the UK, Falcon Coffees sells Kenyan coffee to businesses like Starbucks (but only directly to the company’s flagship coffee shop in London) and many coffee shops in London, like Nude Espresso or Ozone (in east London).

“Our clients want to know that their farmers are being paid well,” says Falcon’s head of specialty sales, Mike Riley, who admits he has no way of guaranteeing his shipments don’t contain stolen beans.

The solution could be in direct sales. Despite the administrative hurdles, some farming co-operatives have managed to navigate the red tape and pool enough resources to get an export license. Direct sales allow farmers to cut the cost of middlemen and reduce the risk of theft by having their own mills and minimising transport. Their results so far seem very positive.

Since its inception three years ago, the Meru Central Farmers Co-operative Society has cut milling losses in half and says it is paying its members up to a third more than they would receive on their own. Meanwhile Othaya Coffee Farmers Co-operative Society recently purchased its own industrial grinder and is selling coffee directly to Switzerland, South Korea and Norway.

Carrington, however, warns that without extensive government support these initiatives won’t be enough to stop the bleeding, especially now that harvest season is underway and foreign buyers expect to receive their first coffee shipments in January. As for Kamai, his co-operative is paying the local police to protect their factory. But that doesn’t reassure him. “Whenever something goes wrong,” he says, “it’s always the farmer who pays”.

Source: The Guardian